Holy Thursday 2021
[Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116; 1Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15]
I think it is fair to say that, by now, we are all pretty tired of connecting with one another at a distance. Deep down we understand the need, we get it, but it truly is a hardship not to be able to be really present with people we love. As the news gives us interviews with people receiving their vaccinations, we hear them say they cannot wait to hug their grandkids, or to move beyond speaking or signing to loved ones through a window. Zoom, FaceTime and the like are fine as far as they go, but we have all learned from painful experience the truth that virtual presence is no substitute for real presence, especially when it comes to the people we call “our own.”
Well, Jesus calls us “his own”, and in the mystery of the Eucharist he is really present with us. He is so for the same reason we want to be really present with those who are “our own.” The passage from St. John’s Gospel puts it this way: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The reason is love, and his love for us is without measure. Ordinary human speech could never capture the depth and breadth of the love of the Lord for each of us, but the inspired language of the Gospel does. We are told that Jesus “loved them to the end.” Jesus loves us, his own, even to the point of giving his life for us on the Cross. As Jesus himself would say later that night, there is no greater love than that (cf. John 15:13). Because of this wondrous and unlimited love, Jesus has given the Eucharist as his real presence with us while we sojourn on this earth. One day we hope that, by his mercy, we shall see him face to face in heaven. Until then, he is with us in the Eucharist. His presence here is very real indeed, because he makes it so by the power of his Word. There is nothing remote or virtual about it.
With this mystery of the Real Presence we find ourselves at the very heart of our Catholic faith and way of life. St. Paul records for us the words of Jesus spoken over the bread and wine at the Last Supper. Keep in mind that these are divine words, which thus convey God’s very power to create and to change. For this reason the Church has always held that when the priest, configured to Christ by ordination, speaks those same words of Jesus, the bread and wine are changed by the Holy Spirit such that they are bread and wine no longer but the true Body and Blood of the Lord. He who loves us without measure, who revealed that love on the Cross, renders himself really present with us, because he wants nothing more than to be with those who are “his own.”
Now, as we look forward to be really present with “our own”, those family members from whom we have been separated, we can’t wait for restrictions to be lifted and barriers removed. When that day comes, the last thing we shall want to do is to put up any barriers of our own making. Grandparents, when they get to visit the homes of their grandchildren, will not arrive with a partition; neither will family members re-united with loved ones in long-term care still insist on standing behind a pane of glass. We shall gladly put aside the barriers so that the love may fully flow.
Yet a strange thing happens when we are in the real presence of Jesus. He wants his love completely to flow over us and in us, but often our instinctive reaction is to erect barriers to it. We see this on display in the reaction of Peter to the intention of Jesus to wash his feet. What Peter sees is the Master about to do the task of a slave, and he responds negatively. But the mysterious response of Jesus takes the action to an entirely different level, which is necessary to grasp. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter and the Church would later understand the meaning of this. Jesus is saying that unless he washes us completely by his love and mercy, we can have no share with him in his risen life. This is why he makes himself really present to us in the Eucharist. By feeding us with his Body and Blood, he pours out over us his love and mercy to wash us clean of sin and restore us to communion with him. There is nothing more consequential than this, so we need to look carefully at how we can be like Peter, resistant and putting up barriers to the love of Christ.
Those barriers usually take the form of regret, shame or guilt at past mistakes and sins. We can fall into the trap of thinking that our sins are somehow of greater consequence than the love of Christ, and live in the illusion that we have become unlovable in his sight. Or the restrictions we impose may come from the opposite direction of pride, indifference, or the unwillingness to change. Lurking often within these barriers is fear; we are afraid of the love of the Lord, knowing it will expose to our own awareness the falsehoods on which we have built our lives. Perhaps we prefer to remain in the comfort of our illusions, and choose to place restrictions on the degree to which we allow in the Lord’s love.
So, the message of Holy Thursday is this: let the barriers down and let Jesus love you. At this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, he is really present because he really loves us. He is as present to us tonight as he was to the twelve apostles in the Upper Room. As we rise from table to enter the Triduum, let’s pray that all resistance to his love and its transformative power will melt away by the gift of his mercy. The love of Jesus and its power to transform our lives will wash over us in the solemn liturgies of Good Friday and Easter. The Cross will speak to us of the love than which there is no greater; the empty tomb will announce the new life of resurrection, in which Jesus wants to give us a part with him. He calls us “his own,” so in the days ahead may we let down the barriers, cast aside any restrictions, and open our lives fully to be cleansed and renewed by the wondrous love of our Lord.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
April 1st, 2021